The Poet of Havana, a music documentary film directed by Canadian filmmaker Ron Chapman, features Carlos Varela, one of the most popular and influential artists in Cuba. The film kicks off the 16th annual Woodstock Film Festival, and includes a post-film question-and-answer session and a live performance by Varela and his band with special guest Jackson Browne on Wednesday, September 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) in Kingston.
“This film was submitted to us in March of this year, and it was our first confirmed film. As soon as we saw it, I knew we had to show it,” says Meira Blaustein, co-founder and executive director of the Woodstock Film Festival. “Carlos is the voice of the people in Cuba – he’s their Bob Dylan – and is so beloved. He is the voice of the man on the street, the real Cuba, because he is true to himself and always very authentic.”
The Poet of Havana captures rehearsals and two concerts at the Teatro Nacionál de Cuba (National Theater of Cuba) in Havana that were offered to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Varela’s career. In the film, the singer/songwriter and his band perform with guest appearances by many well-known musicians, including Jackson Browne, Ivan Lins, Luís Enrique, Eduardo Cabra, Juan Formell, José Luís Cortés, Isaac Delgado, Diana Fuentes, X Alfonso, Alexander Abreu and the String Orchestra of Havana. Actor Benicio del Toro is narrator for The Poet of Havana, which also features interviews with del Toro, Browne and several Cuban musicians.
While in Cuba working on another film, director Ron Chapman discovered Varela’s music and was captivated by both the depth of his talent and his use of artistic expression to question the Communist government’s authority. Varela was born in Havana just four years after the 1959 revolution, and chose to remain in Cuba rather than emigrate. His music has earned him devoted fans in his homeland and, increasingly, around the world. Though frequently censored by the Cuban government, Varela has steadfastly chronicled everyday life in Cuba while withstanding the forces against him; in the process, he has become a powerful artistic leader for a younger generation of Cubans.
“Artists are always the first to voice the sound of change,” says Blaustein.
The Cuban government gave Varela a complete education in theater and music, and he began writing songs at age 15. He joined the Nueva Trova Movement in 1980 and became one of the most popular musicians on the island, despite his government’s refusal to broadcast much of his music due to his critiques of the Communist regime. With a sound that draws closer to rock music than Cuban son or other traditional styles, Varela has attracted critical acclaim and devoted fans on both sides of the Florida Straits.
In December 2009, Varela made his first visit to the US since 1998 (a 2004 request for a visa was denied by the Bush administration). He came to remix an album with Browne, whom he met and became friends with in 2004; but before heading into the Hollywood recording studio, he traveled to Washington, DC to meet with legislators and perform his song, “Muros y Puertas (Walls and Doors),” for members of the US Congress. With lyrics like, “There can be freedom only when nobody owns it,” and “There are those who build walls and those who open doors,” the song conveyed Varela’s concerns and questions about Cuban/American policies.
The lyrical storyteller has recorded eight albums and tours internationally. “Walls and Doors” is featured on Browne’s 2014 release, Standing in the Breach. Varela’s music has been used on many Cuban films, and you may have heard his song, “Una Palabra (A Word),” on the soundtrack for the 2004 film Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning.
In July, when the US Embassy in Cuba reopened, Varela, Browne and del Toro were attending the LA premiere of The Poet of Havana at the Grammy Museum; it has also been shown in recent months at the Miami, Tampa, Arizona, Chicago and other major festivals.
“Here at the Woodstock Film Festival, the fact that The Poet of Havana is directed by a Canadian citizen, Ron Chapman, dovetails nicely with a larger Canadian presence at our festival. Our two honorary awards – the Maverick and the Fiercely Independent Award – will be given to two Canadians for our opening and closing films,” says Blaustein. “This evening with The Poet of Havana is going to be such a great event, a bridging of cultures and musicians. We’re very excited about it, and it’s a great kickoff for the Woodstock Film Festival, to be uniting, bridging our cultures together with music. It will be quite a celebration.”
Evry Mann will serve as interpreter during a post-film Q & A with Varela, Chapman and Browne. Mann, executive director of the Center for Creative Education and founder/director of the Percussion Orchestra of Kingston (POOK), led more than 50 trips to Cuba to study music, dance, visual art and education from 1999 to 2006. The panelists will talk about how they began to collaborate with each other and offer a behind-the-scenes view of the making of the film. The evening will culminate with a live performance by Varela and his band, with special guest Jackson Browne.
For more information, please visit ulsterpub.staging.wpenginefilmfestival.com. Tickets cost $60 and may be purchased at the Woodstock Film Festival box office at 13 Rock City Road in Woodstock, (845) 810-0131; at the UPAC box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; and online at www.ticketmaster.com. There are also limited discounted tickets available; contact UPAC or Bardavon box office for details.
The Poet of Havana screening/Q&A/performance, Wednesday, September 30, 7:30 p.m., $60, but limited discount tickets are available, Ulster Performing Arts Center, 601 Broadway, Kingston; (845) 339-6088, ulsterpub.staging.wpenginefilmfestival.com.